Religious discrimination continues in Russia. In a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. lawmakers expressed “growing concern over the pattern of denial or cancellation of visas for foreign religious workers of minority faiths, adversely affecting Catholic and Protestant communities throughout the Russian Federation.” Such visa problems prevent foreign religious workers from taking up their clerical responsibilities in Russia and ultimately undermine the right of these individuals to practice their religion.
The Keston Institute monitors religious freedom in Communist and post-Communist countries. According to the Institute, there was only one documented visa denial for religious reasons in Russia in 1998. But since then, the numbers have increased dramatically. This year alone, the Keston Institute has reported nineteen cases of foreign religious workers who have been subjected to this type of harassment by the Russian government. So far, seven visas have been revoked and eight denied. Four people have been deported. The Keston Institute recently issued a list of thirty-three individuals either barred from entering Russia or forced to leave since 1998. The list includes several American missionaries.
Past Soviet practices left many minority religious communities without the capacity to train clergy domestically, which they are slowly remedying with new seminaries. But it will take many more years for enough to be trained. As a result, many churches throughout Russia -- especially Catholic and Buddhist congregations -- rely on clergy from abroad to meet their spiritual needs. But Russian officials -- sometimes citing unsubstantiated reasons of “national security” -- deny visas to foreign religious workers, and some regional and local authorities continue to restrict their activities.
As a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia has pledged to promote tolerance and protect religious freedom. It is up to the Russian government to honor these commitments and respect the right of religious communities to select their personnel as they see fit.